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July 2006
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: An Interview with Director Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: An Interview with Director Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, continued
by Brad Balfour

You were actually in there?

JD: In the van, yeah. We were filming out the front window looking back at the car. We were on a tow unit. We realized pretty early on that the van was another character in the film, and in fact the ending originally didn't have them pushing the van, but we eventually realized that after the pageant, you needed to have one last connection with that van, and that when you saw them all working together without speaking a word essentially, that tells you how far the family has come.

Even though a lot has changed, a lot of things are still the same.

JD: Exactly, that was very important. We didn't want to have that Disney ending. That's why the language is important, and we didn't want it to get all sweet and syrupy.

Was the van always a part of the script? Have you really driven a van?

JD & VF: Oh yeah.

Because I had one.

VF: Did you ever have to push it?

Oh yes. Believe me, we broke down, and I had the yin yang sign on the front of it, and all that. It's got its own story.

VF: They should do a VW van documentary story because so many families
have stories. I went across Europe in a VW camper with my parents, and
then we had a passenger van that broke down and that we had to push
it. Michael [Arndt], the writer, swears that the door fell off his
van, and that's where that came from.

JD: When we first started dating, I had a VW van. I won't say anything

Q: Have you the "National Lampoon's Vacation" movie. Did you ever
think of rethinking your film with that in mind?

JD: I'd never seen that movie, and I kind of made a point not to see
it. I knew of course about the grandmother, and we watched "European
Vacation" just to see the tone, and I felt like there was a different
enough tone, and that was in the script, and that was a really funny
thing. The challenge was how can you pull this off in a believable way? I don't know what it's like in the "National Lampoon's Vacation," but the tire on the top of the car…

VF: We were thinking "Weekend at Bernie's"…everyone time you touch upon a dead body you're going to think of those films, but…

JD: Originally, the script was a little more…not slapstick, but they originally pushed the body out of a three-story window, and so it was bloody, but we just felt like….

VF: I don't know, I think the way that we approached it, without consciously saying, "Oh, let's steer away from that," was because what was so important to us was that if you're following these characters, and identifying with the way that they're acting on some level, like the way that Greg has to go to the hospital. It's reasonable to take the body, because you wouldn't want to leave him there if you loved him. You wouldn't want to leave the body, but he wanted to do what his daughter wanted—if you felt that those conflicts, that the stress that he was under was real, or as real as we could make, that act would not
seem as outlandish. I think that was really the challenge of that scene, to try to make you think, "Yeah, they are doing the right thing."

After that, Greg's character tends to be a fully rounded person instead of just "The Heel."

JD: Right, and it's a turning point. It's really where you say, "Wow. This guy is fucked up. I like this guy."

Had you ever thought about making a documentary about pageants (laughs). What kind of research did you do, and this being your first feature film, how did you approach doing a comedy about this subject? That's a hell of a thing to take on.

VF: We never really thought of it—well, we knew it was funny, but we
liked that it was purely a comedy. I think pure comedies are so hard.

JD: I don't think it sounds like fun.

VF: It doesn't sound fun. It's like a technical thing.

JD: Basically, the audience is sitting there thinking, "Okay. Make me laugh. Where's the next laugh?" And I think you feel that on the set. What happens is that all the actors, and the filmmakers feel this pressure. "Oh god, I haven't been funny in fifteen seconds. Wait,
maybe him walking across the lot could be funny." You end up with this terrible pressure, and this was so refreshing for us because you had a basic drama, and the laughs would pop out of there, and that was so much more fun to us. As far as the pageant goes, it was very important to us that the film not be about pageants. It's about being out of place, it's about not knowing where you're going to end up…

VF: And it's about the contest of life, just that final contest. The Richard character always feels like he's being put to the test. You feel like he's trying so hard, and that everything is a test. The final test is this contest where he has no control over it, but to kind of see him take over, and defend her is a really great thing, like where he goes, "Fuck the contest." For us, the beauty pageant was a really clear contest, and a context to put this beautiful, little girl in contrast to girls that are brought up to be beautiful.

What were directions did you give to whoever did makeup and styling for the girls in the contest?

JD: This is really important: there were no directions. Those were real pageant girls, done up by their mothers. They brought all their own equipment. They brought every aspect of that.

VF: If you go, that's what you'll see.

JD: It's tricky here, because this is a community that has been beaten up so much, and they were really paranoid…

VF: Very sensitive.

JD: Our first sentence to them was, "Okay, this is not going to be Jean Benet Ramsey" [the little girl found murdered who had been a pageant devotee]--just to get it out on the table--because they know. They're so exhausted.

VF: They're so bruised.

JD: We knew you couldn't fake this, because these are girls who have been working at this all their lives.

VF: We just stood there. When we did the bathing suit contest we said, "Okay do what you do in a bathing suit contest." I don't know what it is. So we get one of the moms to organize this. "We want them standing at the back of the stage. How do you have them usually come out?" They told us, "Well, this is how we do it," and they all came out just to hit their poses, and she comes out pigeon-toed, and that was just the way it happened.

JD: That was life, that was life. Our point is not to make a big editorial statement about beauty pageants, it's to depict it as honestly as we can and then to let the audience make their judgment.

VF: If we wanted to make them look bad, and show the mother and daughter fighting, and the daughter crying, there was a scene in there where two little girls laugh at Olive because she's…

JD: Chubby.

VF: Chubby. They say, "Are you on one a diet?" And she says, "No." And one of them says, "I didn't think so." That was a scene; we shot it, we hated it. People will draw their own conclusions, and most people are going to find it pretty offensive I think, but there's no way around it. You can't show that scene without it being offensive to some people.

How did the parents react, the ones that have seen it?

JD: We haven't seen it with any of the audiences. We made a point of going through the whole story with the parents, and the kids so that they knew; it was really important to us not to abuse that trust. We explained that Dwayne [Paul Dano--the nihilistic teenage son is going to come in and say, "This place is fucked up," and that the grandpa taught her this dance, and the family doesn't know what this dance is, and that when she performs it, they're going to discover it for the first time. We told them that it's kind of like this story about a little family dog, this little mutt, and you said, "I'm going to take this dog to a dog show."

VF: "That dog is so cute."

JD: And you arrive, and you realize that all the other dogs are purebred, and that they've all been combed, and have their little prance, so they got that.

VF: And they watched the whole thing go down, and they were there at the shoot, in the audience.

JD: They had a great time. All the girls were learning Olive's steps afterwards…well, not all the steps, but they all thought it was funny, and they knew the context. I think the hardest thing is these moments when people will snicker, and a girl just walks into view…

VF: We never asked them to smile at all. They came up, and that's what they do. It's going to be a little bit of shock because I think if they go see it with an audience, the audience is going to have a reaction to this stuff, and I don't know if there's anything—the only we could've avoided it is to not have a pageant at all. We had to have that.

JD: We really hope that this doesn't get seen as a beauty pageant movie. For the most part, we hope people don't know that they get there so that that drama remains.

You have kids, right?

JD: We have three children.

Would your kids get to see this?

JD: They've seen it.

VF: Multiple times.

How old are they?

JD: Twin boys that are 10, and a 13 year old girl.

VF: So old enough to have heard those words [that the Grandfather speaks] many times.

How did they feel?

JD: They love it. They love acting out the scenes where the language gets…

VF: There favorite shot is seeing Dwayne do that move on stage; that just cracks them up.

Does your daughter think Paul is dreamy?

VF: Paul…(laughs)

JD: Maybe not dreamy, but she really loves him. We saw so many actors for that role, and Paul was just—we love "Harold and Maude" and Paul is not Bud Cort [lead of this classic black comedy], but he's this distinctive…

VF: You just don't need to do a lot.

He's almost instantly likable.

JD: Originally the script called for him to have a Mohawk…

VF: And really well-built.

JD: He's just one of those actors that's just a great person, and the thing that I'm happiest about is that we didn't choose people because they're good people to be in this movie, they just happened to all be amazing people in life, but I think that that does come through.

VF: Who they are as people—I think that's true of actors. You can't get around some element…

JD: Seeps through.

What are you working on now?

JD: We have a couple of projects that we're working on that are being written, but unfortunately it's going to take forever. We have a Red Hot Chili Peppers video that's coming up next month, and we'll continue to do other things as we nurture these films along.

VF: I think that we see ourselves doing more small films; that's the way we like working. We never felt like we were on a low-budget film doing this film. We had the best cast that you could imagine.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE opens on July 28, 2006



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